Elizabeth Raymer attends a conference on the Nakba, or catastrophe - the dispossession of the Palestinians after the Israeli war of independence in 1948.
In 1948 Sammaya Talhami was studying at a convent school in Nazareth. Now a retired English and French teacher, Ms. Talhami recalls that year vividly. Refugees were coming in from the Galilee region and she remembers throwing blankets from her school window down to the children in the street.
In November, Ms. Talhami attended the seventh international Sabeel conference in Nazareth, Jerusalem, and villages in the Galilee. The woman sitting beside her asked whether she was from a certain village near Nazareth. As the two women reminisced, Ms. Talhami broke down in tears.
The sixty-year-old Palestinian "Nakba" (Arabic for "catastrophe") still evokes painful memories. Sabeel, an ecumenical liberation theology organization based in Palestine, made the Nakba the focus of its week-long conference, which attracted more than 200 delegates from around the world. We heard from 40 presenters.
"A TIME TO REMEMBER"
On the first full day of the conference Dr. Ahmad Sa'di, a political scientist from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, asked: "What does the Nakba mean for Palestinians?" He answered the question himself:
"The uprooting of people from their homeland, the destruction of the fabric of society that had existed for millennia. Five hundred villages and urban centres destroyed; 750,000 people expelled and left in political, psychological, and social disarray."
From the Galilean village of Rameh, he said, "they were setting off on a trail of tears, toward the Lebanese border ... Most pathetic were the dogs, barking, following their masters. One master said, `Go back. At least you can stay.'"
Addressing the situation of Palestinians in modern-day Israel, Dr. Uri Davis, an Israeli academic and noted author on Palestine, said that the Jewish state remains the only apartheid state with membership in United Nations. Although Israeli apartheid is less obvious than was South Africa's, he noted, even more land in Israel (93 per cent) is allocated for Jews only, compared to 87 per cent of the land reserved for whites in South Africa. The right of 1948 refugees to return to their entitlements inside Israel and their inheritance rights must be upheld, Dr. Davis insisted.
The third full day of the conference took busloads of delegates to villages in the Galilee that had been depopulated and demolished during the Nakba. As the tour bus drove north past Nazareth, we could see the village of Kafr Yasif. Today it is still a Palestinian town -- Christian and Muslim -- but nearly all the store signs are in Hebrew.
Al Ghabisiyya is 11.5 km from Acre, within the territory allotted to the Arab state under the United Nations' 1947 partition plan. In 1948 Al Ghabisiyya was an entirely Muslim village with 700 residents. The economy was based on livestock and agriculture, and olives were grown and processed in the two animal-drawn presses in the village.
Abu Razi tells visitors to Al Ghabisiyya that he was ten years old when he was forced to leave the village in 1948. Despite a non-aggression pact made with Jewish militia leaders in March of that year, on May 21, at around five o'clock in the morning, Abu Razi heard voices and shooting. "The Jews came with arms, to take over the village."
One local man was given the order to greet the advancing units by waving a white flag. The militia shot him dead. Most of the women, children, and elderly managed to escape to the south, but the men remained, and 13 residents were killed, Abu Razi reports. The eldest was an 80-year-old man, the youngest a baby in his mother's arms. The young mother died of fright. One elderly villager invited the militia in for coffee. Afterward he was taken with his son and a visitor to a hilltop outside the village and shot.
Unlike most internal refugees of 1948, the residents of Al Ghabisiyya were allowed back within a year after their expulsion. However, in August 1951, then prime minister David Ben Gurion declared the village a closed military zone and ordered the residents expelled again. An Israeli supreme court ruling that November stated that the villagers had a right to return, but when they attempted to do so the Israeli military turned them back. Between 1955 and 1956 all homes and most other buildings in the village were destroyed, and coils of barbed wire were placed around it.
Abu Razi recalls the names of all the inhabitants of Al Ghabisiyya and where their houses stood. He is the keeper of his town's memories. As a child he used to sit and listen to the elders talk rather than playing with children his own age.
He has painted two town plans and has recorded the name of each family in a book, along with their house number. He holds these up for visitors and asks them to become ambassadors for Palestine.
Al Bassa was a mixed Christian-Muslim village about 19 km north of Acre. A larger village than Al Ghabisiyya, Al Bassa had contained a public elementary school for girls, a separate one for boys, a private secondary school, two athletic clubs, two mosques, two churches, and several shrines.
Al Bassa was seized during Operation Ben-Ami, on May 14, 1948, and most of the residents were evacuated over the hilltops to Lebanon. Today a Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic church are still standing, as well as a mosque. The churches are still accessible, though the Israelis will not allow the faithful to remove any debris from them, and they are in a state of disrepair. The mosque, on the other hand, cannot even be entered; it is surrounded by a sheet-metal wall and a sign warning that entry is forbidden. (See the photo.)
Former residents of Al Bassa know they will never get their churches back as they were before, says Elias Wakim, who was forced from this village at the age of 11. "But they want to preserve them." As we gather in the ancient Greek Orthodox church, he tells us that his grandson had been baptized there, amidst the rubble, only three months earlier. Photos of this sacrament were sent across the world.
Several eminent speakers addressed the conference on the last day at Jerusalem's Notre Dame Centre. They included Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr., a renowned veteran of the American civil rights movement, and Mairead Maguire, a Northern Irish peace activist and Nobel laureate.
Dr. LaFayette, a Baptist minister who now directs the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, told us that it isn't enough to resist nonviolently; activists must put their opponents on the defensive. Nonviolence as a goal is to win opponents over as allies, he said, citing the work of Martin Luther King. But earlier he had said, rather provocatively, "Nonviolence won't work. [pause] You have to work it! It's like an airplane: It can't fly on its own. If you can't fly it, it won't work."
Dr. LaFayette identified one step to change as the willingness to give up "identity," which prevents behavior from changing. "You can change others' perception of you," he continued, recalling that blacks in Montgomery, Alabama had walked for 180 days during the bus boycott in 1955-56. "But they agreed to walk indefinitely," he said. "There's no timetable on change."
"Who is building the walls, and who is building the settlements?" he asked, as a final challenge to the audience.
In her address Ms. Maguire, a co-founder of Northern Ireland's Peace People organization and 1987 co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, noted that since 1967, almost 20,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in the West Bank and the illegal settlement of Israelis is continuing. She pointed out the irony that Israelis are building a "Museum of Tolerance" on the site of a Muslim cemetery.
Ms. Maguire noted that "all occupations and conflicts will sooner or later come to an end. Reconciliation will flourish between Israeli and Palestinian people someday. But before that, you need truth. The truth shall indeed set your spirit free, but ... the truth will also be physically, emotionally and in other ways very costly.
"We must also challenge Palestinian armed insurgency groups, and use nonviolent civil resistance and action. Nonviolence is a political theory that does work."
A delegate echoed Ms. Maguire's remarks when reading from the conference's closing statement.
"Truth is essential for peacemaking. We acknowledge the truth that our silence about the status of the Palestinian people equals complicity in this ongoing tragedy. The status quo is a crime against humanity. As Christians, we can no longer be silent. ... May we seek creatively to disturb the status quo with acts born of courage, love and truth."
Elizabeth Raymer is a Toronto journalist currently living in the West Bank, working with an international NGO.